Inside Story

Passion play at Kardinia Park

Books | James Button’s tale of a football club made good has all the elements of classical drama

Brett Evans 26 October 2016 2188 words

Catharsis: Geelong players hold the premiership cup aloft after defeating Collingwood in the 2011 AFL Grand Final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Joe Castro/AAP Image

Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong
By James Button | Melbourne University Press | $29.99

A friend of mine had tickets to the first qualifying final between the Swans and the GWS Giants, so we caught the train out to Sydney’s Olympic Stadium. (Its real name commemorates some bank or other, but no one I know uses it.) There we joined the migrating herds of colour-coded supporters as they converged on the field of battle.

It was a clear, sunny day; the cool air tasted of possibility and fear. As the two teams entered the arena and breached their exhortatory banners, the crowd let out a huge sigh of anticipation.

We were called to attention by the national anthem, then the distinctive Australian Rules siren blared. The umpire stepped in for the opening bounce, with 60,000 pairs of eyes following his every move.

All around me anxious-looking men held their breath, teenagers refrained from texting, and small groups of transfixed women stared in wonder. In an instant they would be crossing over into that state that every sports tragic desires: freedom from all other worldly concerns. The ball rose in the air, tumbling above the ruck; the roar of the crowd was deafening.

Three-and-a-half quarters later, Swans fans were leaving early in disappointment. The youthful Giants had run down their more experienced opponents. By the siren they were ahead by thirty-six points. It was a massive upset.

And I didn’t feel a thing. I was an atheist at church; a non-believer among the faithful. I had attended out of curiosity, simply because my friend had asked me. Neither team – nor the sport itself – was of any interest to me. The train home was filled with the agonised and the ecstatic; I was trying to calculate if I’d be back in time for dinner.

Yet just a few weeks earlier I had been sitting in almost identical seats in the same stadium, sweating a thousand pinpricks of blood while watching a different set of teams playing a different sport.

The Wallabies had played New Zealand in the first test of the 2016 Bledisloe Cup. We scored eight hard-won points, but the All Blacks scored forty-two – and with an arrogance and ease that was awe-inspiring and demoralising in equal parts. I won’t go into the sordid details; they are still too painful to recount. But it was like watching a team of clumsy twelve-year-olds playing a team of gods.

Though he was a New Zealander, my father never played Rugby Union. In his poverty-stricken childhood he was moved around Christchurch by my rent-dodging grandmother so many times that he barely had time to learn to read, let alone join a rugby club.

But every year in late summer, race memory would kick in, and Dad would take me and my brother around to our local shops to sign up for winter sport. And every year, just outside Price’s Pharmacy, a row of men would be sitting at card tables. We’d walk past the man at the soccer table, then the League man, and then we’d stop at the Rugby table and put down our names.

I was five when this ritual began. From the very beginning I loved everything about the game, and I went on playing for my local club for the next twenty years. And just as much, I loved watching the Wallabies play – particularly when they competed with the All Blacks for the Bledisloe Cup. But I dreaded the phone call from the New Zealand side of my family after they had beaten us – which they usually did.

Like most Australians, I found my sporting allegiance in childhood and it has never left me. As I got older I began to understand the inviolable nature of this commitment. I remember once trying to engage with a work colleague about an upcoming Bledisloe Test Match.

“Not interested,” she said.

“But they’re your national team,” I countered, appealing to her patriotism.

“I’ve already got a team. They’re called the Cats.”

“Who are the bloody Cats?” I spluttered.

The Melbourne-born writer and journalist James Button can clearly remember when he became a one-eyed Australian Rules football fan. At the age of seven or eight, as he was being driven to school by his father, John Button, who would later serve in Bob Hawke’s Labor government, he leaned over from the back seat and casually asked, “Dad, who do you barrack for?”

Upon Button Senior’s one-word answer hung the nature of the youngster’s winter Saturdays for the next four decades and beyond. Without fully understanding the consequences – and just like my erstwhile colleague – James Button had become a supporter of the Cats, also known as the Geelong Football Club. In an instant, father had passed down to son something that would become both a burden and a joy.

“You can change jobs, cities, teeth, your house, your spouse, your life. You can even change your sex,” Button writes. “But you can’t change your team.”

Coming not long after my brush with Australian Rules at Olympic Park, Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong had the potential to be the most tedious book I’ve ever had to read. No sensible person willingly chews through over 300 pages motivated by another person’s fandom without sharing the obsession. It is a testament to Button’s skills as a journalist and storyteller that this book was read with interest and delight by someone who has never been to Geelong, doesn’t intend ever going to Geelong, and has watched exactly one game of AFL in his life.

How did Button accomplish this?

To begin with, Geelong’s story is almost mythical in shape. It’s a tale that matches Joseph Campbell’s famous “hero’s journey,” the storyline so beloved of Hollywood.

Once upon a time, the narrative might go, there was a country town that felt it was scorned and disparaged by its near neighbour, the great metropolis of Melbourne. “We might be lowly provincials,” the people of the town reasoned, “but at least we engage in the Great Game with balletic skill and grace.” As they sang in their club song: “We play the game as it should be played.”

But in the 1950s the town fell into a deep despair. For a couple of years the only thing Geelong could win was the wooden spoon. The condescending sneers of the big clubs from Melbourne cut, and cut deep. The word “soft” was heard in the land.

But wait, a shining prince came out of the West. Polly Farmer, the great Aboriginal player, the best hand-passer the game has ever seen, the sport’s first real professional, helped Geelong to a grand final place in 1963 – and they won.

Having tasted success, the good people of Geelong craved more of it. They beseeched their gods, “Let the premiership come again.” But it never came. And it never came some more. Decades passed. The year 1963 came to be seen as a cruel anomaly.

Then a new hero arrived, a country boy from Myrtleford. With the great Gary Ablett in the pocket, Geelong thought another premiership was in the bag. But it was not to be. To get so close and yet no closer tormented the good people of Geelong. The pain of not winning led to a revolution in thought and deed.

In 2000, outsiders were brought in – a new CEO and a new board. Old habits died, and died hard. A new coach – Mark “Bomba” Thompson – laid out a seven-year plan to win the flag.

Geelong found new, young players – many of them locals or country boys, the traditional source of club champions. Slowly, sometimes stutteringly, Geelong rose again. By 2007 the young team was older and wiser and battle-hardened. In the grand final that year it crushed Port Adelaide by a record margin of 119 points. Forty-four years of failure came to a glorious end.

When the Cats brought home the cup – what the Jungian Campbell would have called “the return with the elixir” – Geelong went completely nuts; it was a Festival of Bacchanalia by Corio Bay. The streets were filled with honking cars and drunken supporters – but no one was arrested; the town’s tattoo parlours went into overdrive inking commemorations; nine months later came a mini baby boom.

It was a paroxysm of catharsis that Sophocles would have recognised. According to Button, one woman watched the first half of the game at home on TV, and when it became clear Geelong was going to win “she took her portable radio to the cemetery and listened to the second half sitting beside her mother’s grave.”

The residents of Oberammergau may have their Passion Play, but the citizens of Geelong have their footy club. From 2007 to 2011, Geelong made it into four grand finals and won three.

Apart from the story itself, Button has at his disposal a cast of characters so uniquely weird that at times the book reads like a novel about a strange cult.

The intense former North Melbourne champion Malcolm Blight was Geelong’s coach in the early 1990s. He took them to three grand finals in six years but never won a flag. Blight’s attempts to motivate his players could be bizarre.

He would get them to sit in a circle with blankets over their heads, while “Big Chief Malcolm” laid down the law to his “Indians.” He would make them form an honour guard to clap their opponents onto the field. And if that didn’t work, Blight would take his team into a pitch-black room and yell at them while chucking chairs around. The only thing he didn’t try, it seems, was a haka at three-quarter time.

A decade later, when Geelong was on its way to greatness, a player named Max Rooke – a gentle, beloved eccentric who took ballroom dancing lessons but was as hard as a sack of hammers on the field – created a team bonding ritual.

In a secret ceremony Rooke asked the other players to write down on a piece of paper their greatest ambition – “I want to be a premiership player” – then the bits of paper were gathered up, set on fire, and the ashes were stored in an old flask made of cloth and animal hide that Rooke had bought for $20 at a shop that sold African arts and crafts. “Then they dripped wax around the edges of the lid to seal it shut,” reports Button.

The flask – known as The Spirit – was awarded each week by the players to their teammate who showed the most Geelong spirit. It would then stand above the honoured player’s locker at the next game. Is this normal behaviour for young professional football players? Probably not, but they won the premiership that year.

And who has ever pierced the unknowable heart of that flawed hero of Geelong, Gary Ablett senior? Once, when the team was about to run on to Geelong’s home ground at Kardinia Park, someone thought to ask, “Where’s Gary?” According to Button:

He was found on a chest in the boot room eating a pie. At other times he was found in the same place, weeping. There in the boot room were the two Abletts: daffy genius and tormented soul.

Underlying the story of Geelong is the more fundamental story that bubbles beneath the surface of all big-time men’s team sport: the barely contained male hysteria that occurs when you make war, minus the weapons.

Relying on a lifetime of personal observations, and over 200 interviews, Button has managed to get at this story from a variety of angles. He gets inside the locker rooms, and sits among the crowds in the stand; he gives us glimpses of the powerbrokers in their boardroom, and goes out on the pitch with players.

It’s a fascinating portrait of a football club as a human institution: rancorous, magnificent and often absurd. Despite a brief – and no doubt embarrassing – flirtation with Richmond when he was five, Button has been a Cats man all his life. And the Cats are lucky to have him as their unauthorised historian.

When I finished Comeback, I thought, “Maybe I’ll give up my insouciant neutrality and start supporting Geelong, if only to annoy my Swans-loving friends.” But I will never, ever understand why so much raw athletic power and so much life-giving passion is expended on an Aussie Rules team when it could be harnessed to achieve something important: like beating the bloody All Blacks. •